Ted Siefer's City Hall: 'Superintendent' Baines? Will he or won't he?
Back in October, when the school board decided to hire a headhunting firm to conduct a national search for a new superintendent, Mayor Ted Gatsas vowed to go hat-in-hand to the business community to raise funds for the contract. The superintendent, after all, is "the most important job in the city," as he has often stated.
So it was a bit of a letdown Tuesday, when the school board could not settle on any of the three finalists it had flown in and who had run a gantlet of meetings and tours and a grilling at a public forum at Memorial High School the night before.
Now that the dust is settling, another potential candidate has emerged - and he's not exactly the product of an extensive national search: former Mayor Robert Baines, who, prior to winning the corner office, was the longtime principal of Manchester High School West.
The rumor that Baines had been asked to take the job on an interim basis began circulating right around the time of the forum Monday, and it went something like this: Gatsas, being unimpressed with the three candidates, proposed Baines take the helm, at least temporarily.
Gatsas insisted on Thursday that he had an open mind about the three candidates. "I think they are certainly wonderful people. I just don't think they were the right fit for the city," he said.
But he allowed that, yes, he believed Baines was someone who should be considered. "I think he has the expertise," he said.
Baines did not return several messages for comment.
Asked about how receptive Baines was to the idea, Gatsas said, "I think someone, when they're asked to come and try and help a situation, is flattered by it, and I think he was certainly flattered by it."
The mayor stressed that it was up to the full board how it wanted to proceed. "It's truly up to them whether to continue the national search or whether to have someone at the interim level," he said.
Gatsas still maintained that the superintendent is the "most important hire" in the city. "We shouldn't just settle for somebody," he said.
Gatsas also noted that no taxpayer dollars had been used to pay the search firm, and if additional services are needed, he'll go out and raise more money.
Baines, of course, has a history in this city, and there is at least one elected official - and probably more - who is not at all enthusiastic about him getting the superintendent's job, if even on a temporary basis.
Alderman at-large Joe Kelly Levasseur said he's going to call on the city's Conduct Board to "investigate Mayor Gatsas' attempt to subvert the superintendent nominee process." So goes a statement he released last week.
"School district rules and the charter itself preclude any member of the boards from acting on their own," he wrote.
Levasseur also thinks Baines would be a horrible choice for superintendent. "Obviously Mayor Gatsas does not think very highly of our school district if he thinks Bob Baines is a best choice to run our schools. The man just ran a college into the ground," Levasseur wrote, referring to the closing of Chester College last year. Baines had been president of the college. While the faculty voted no-confidence in him, the college's board president said it was the economy, not Baines, that was to blame for its demise.
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Not surprisingly, Gatsas' mayoral rival, Alderman Patrick Arnold, Ward 12, chimed in following the non-naming of a superintendent. "Mayor Gatsas has chaired the school board for four years. His inability to bring people together for anything other than his terms has again resulted in resources wasted, the process ridiculed, and a missed opportunity for our city," he said in a statement. Ouch.
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For all the consternation directed at him, it's clear that Gatsas was not alone in his dissatisfaction with the superintendent finalists. By several accounts, three camps emerged at the school board's closed-door meeting Tuesday, when the members interviewed the candidates and debated their merits. Four to five members backed Vincent Cotter, the retired suburban Philadelphia superintendent; a slightly smaller number backed Geoffrey Gordon, the retired Long Island superintendent; and a slim majority wanted none of the above. (Mark Toback, superintendent in Hoboken, N.J., had withdrawn his name from consideration.) No vote was ever taken.
Ward 9 school board member Art Beaudry said he liked Cotter, but he would have been willing to back Gordon. "I thought both were competent individuals, but I liked Cotter because he was more data-driven," he said, adding that the meeting was conducted in such a way that members could not rally behind a candidate.
Others said they believed it was important for the board to reach a consensus.
"We really need to make a unified choice," at-large board member Kathy Staub said. "If you don't have that kind of resolve behind it, it's going to be difficult" going forward.
Board member Christopher Stewart, Ward 3, said he was "disappointed that we didn't vote out one of the two candidates."
Stewart added that he was concerned about finding someone to take over for Superintendent Thomas Brennan with only a few months before his last day. "I'm committed to supporting the school board and the process of finding a new superintendent with the new salary range, which I'm hopeful will expand the potential applicants, but I think the school board has to be on dual tracks, to look at finding a suitable interim superintendent."
Both Brennan and Gatsas have suggested that the board may need to raise the upper limit of the salary to at least $170,000 in order to draw more worthy applicants.
Not everyone on the school board, of course, is on board with offering more money for the job. Ward 5 board member Ted Rokas, who chairs the search committee, said he believes any adjustment to the salary range for the superintendent should go before the full board.
For his part, Rokas is hopeful that Mr. or Ms. Right is still out there.
"I'm optimistic we'll find somebody really good," he said. "We don't want to just fill the position."
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.